Originally published in November 2015.
Valentine Mühlberger offers PR, Marketing and Translation Services to wine companies and is a member of a professional tasting team in addition to her work as a freelance writer.
Despite its imperial beginning, it took more than two thousand years and a great deal of patience for La Clape to earn an AOC crown. This summer La Clape, a landmass that was once a Mediterranean island (more on that in just a bit), was appointed Appellation d’origine contrôlée, which is a prestigious, rigorously controlled regional or sub-regional designation.
As if this was not enough, the region gained a second distinction in 2015. For the first time a Languedoc wine estate received a perfect score of 100 Parker points.
Be among the first to taste a new but ancient wine and to taste other indigenous specialties like the Bourboulenc grape, the Lucques olive or even the local rice. Imagine yourself in a local wine restaurant in the midst of the vine-rows or a charming little wine bar in the old Roman port city of Narbonne.
Renaissance of a Giant
The Languedoc-Roussillon extends from the Rhône-Delta to the Spanish border and has rapidly become the hottest spot in France. It is the world’s largest vineyard with 240,000 Hectares (600,000 acres) under vine. To provide some perspective on size, this French region produces more grapes than all the vineyards in Chile. In spite of this great volume of fruit, Languedoc once produced mainly basic table wine. Beginning in the 1970s, however, things began to slowly change as a real quest for quality wine gained momentum.
The shift in quality began with a change in grape varieties. The high-volume grapes like Aramon and Alicante Bouschet disappeared almost entirely. They were replaced by international French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and especially Syrah for high-quality, AOC wines.
At the same time, the best parcels of terroir were identified and wine growers began to invest in these premium vineyards. The consequence of all this effort was the introduction of a hierarchy, inspired by the Burgundian quality-pyramid. So in 2007 the basic level was introduced as the regional appellation AOC Languedoc. The second level, or Grand vin du Languedoc, was assigned to sub-regions like AOC . At the third level, and the top level of the pyramid, are communal appellations and these wines are called Cru du Languedoc. La Clape joined this elite set of appellations along with Corbières-Boutenac, Minervois-La-Livinère, Saint-Chinian-Berlou, Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun, Faugères.
The Magnificent Countryside and Unique Bio-Diversity of a Former Mediterranean Island
In the local Occitan language, La Clape translates as “a pile of stone,” but it is a very special collection of stone. Until the thirteenth century, La Clape was an island and completely disconnected from the French coast. Over many centuries, alluvial deposits from the Pyrenees and the Sea accumulated to attach it to the mainland.
La Clape actually borrows its name from the massif that forms a barrier between the Mediterranean and Narbonne. The landscape is an undulating combination of limestone plateaus and deep ravines. At its highest point, it reaches 214 meters (700 feet) above sea level and offers a spectacular view that takes in the plain of Narbonne, the beaches and the inlets. On a clear day you might even see the Pyrenees Mountains, which are the natural frontier with Spain.
This is also one of the sunniest and driest areas in France. In this Mediterranean climate, vegetation flourishes. The grape vines certainly benefit from the dry climate, but the scrubland is intensely perfumed by rosemary, thyme, fennel, boxwood and even myrtle. Wafting up from the coast comes up the smell of pine, carried inland by the marine breeze.
The genesis of La Clape from island to coastal massif contributed to an amazing bio-diversity. The Centaurée de La Clape is a lovely violet flower that grows only in this tiny region. You will find the bird paradise, warblers and rare Eagles throughout the area the area. Other birds, like the white and black stork, stop here as part of their migratory pattern. The most popular local occupant, however, is the pink flamingo, which can be spotted in the nearby Bages-Sigean lagoon.
AOC La Clape—What’s in the bottle?
La Clape’s semi-arid Mediterranean climate sees 3000 hours of sunshine annually. The summer heat is offset, however, as the region is simultaneously cooled by a strong maritime breeze. The pebbly soil consists of of limestone, calcareous marl and some sandstone. This creates perfect conditions for a range of southern grape varieties and up to ten are approved for white wines and five for reds. The wines consist of obligatory blends, which is the southern French tradition.
In La Clape nearly eighty percent of wines produced are red blends. The main varietals are Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Some Carignan and Cinsault can be added to the mix. Hence the wines are full-bodied and concentrated. The intense nose of red fruit and spices is frequently accompanied by licorice and black olive notes. The wines are always well structured with silky tannins that make them perfect with grilled meat and game.
The Languedoc produces wine with very distinctive character, but their reputation as a region raising grapes for bulk-wine production caused them to be overshadowed by their nearest neighbors the Rhône and Bordeaux. This reputation is rapidly changing. For the first time a Languedoc wine, the Clos des Truffières 2001 from Château de La Negly earned a rating of 100 Parker Points. This is just the start of a promising future.
Less common, but certainly worth attention, are the white wines. A white La Clape is a crisp wine with a great freshness. Citrus, white peaches and floral notes are dominant which makes it a perfect wine for fish and seafood. Bourboulenc is the star of the appellation. This grape variety, originally from the Provence, can be found in many appellations in the South of France. In La Clape it must make up at least 30% of the blend. It brings citrus aromas with a note of smoke and moderate alcohol levels. Other white varietals include Clairette, Piquepoul, Vermentino, Marsanne and Rousanne. Finally, a very old Languedoc variety, Terret blanc, can also be found throughout the region.
The new La Clape appellation includes only red and white wines. Nevertheless, you will also find many rosé AOC Languedoc wines. They are actually a mainstay of southern France.
Where to Stay and Taste in Narbonne
If Narbonne is chosen as a base of operations, we recommend the nice Hotel de la Résidence in the city center. It is within easy walking distance of a host of shops, restaurants and wine bars.
In the nearby market Les Halles about 300 La Clape Wines can be tasted at Les tapas de La Clape.
1 Boulevard Dr. Ferroul, Narbonne
If you are in the mood for a good piece of grilled meat you must go to Chez Bebelle, he is the star of the market.
Les Halles de Narbonne, 11100
Les Cusiniers Caviste is an excellent local restaurant. The name translates as “the cooking vintners” and their venue maintains a very a cordial atmosphere, where they serve local cuisine supported by an extensive list.
Place Lamourguier, 11100 Narbonne
Le Petit Comptoir is a typical French brasserie-like restaurant with nicely presented traditional food and over 350 wines.
4, Boulevard du Maréchal Joffre, Narbonne
Le Jardin offers inventive French cuisine and a nice little patio.
50 passage de l'ancien courier, Narbonne
La table Saint-Crescent is without doubt the finest restaurant in the area and Chef Lionel Giraud has a Michelin star.
Rontpoint de la Liberté, 68 avenue du Général Leclerc, Narbonne
Places to Stay, Taste and Visit among the Vines
If you prefer to stay in the wine growing area of La Clape, you will be only a few minutes drive from Narbonne. Many estates do have guest rooms (chambre d’hôtes) or even hotels, which makes tasting much more comfortable.
Château de la Négly is one of the best estates in the entire region, but sadly has no accommodations. They do have a tasting room and this stop is a must for wine lovers.
Route des vins, 11560 Fleury d’Aude
Château Hospitalet is probably the best-known and most highly rated estate. It belongs to the “Prince of the Languedoc,” as Jancis Robinson once referred to Gérard Bertrand. Charismatic Bertrand is a former rugby player and a real ambassador for the Languedoc, where he owns over 400 hectares in different appellations. You can stop just for a wine tasting and choose out of a considerable selection. There is also an excellent restaurant with tasting menu and even a wine buffet with two-dozen different wines. The hotel at Château l’Hospitalet has elegant, comfortable bedrooms each with a wine theme (starting at € 100).
The 300-year-old Château Le Bouis is so lovely that we just had to mention it. It is still in the La Clape massif but produces only Corbières wine. The rooms have been tastefully decorated and there is a small pool. One part of the Château has been transformed into a restaurant with delightful regional food. From the terrace there is a splendid view of the vineyards, the pine forest and the Mediterranean.
Château Capitouls sits atop a small hill on the Route de Gruissan. The castle has been beautifully restored and it should be a stop as you explore the region. Guided tours with a tasting are organized every day. The Château can also be rented for several days, but only for groups of 8-10.
Abbaye des Monges was founded in 1204 as a Cistercian monastery. Today it is a historic ruin, but the property contains three small cottages that are available for rental.
Château d’Angles is known for its excellent wines and they are frequently recognized “Decanter.” It is located not far from the beaches and has a few cozy guest rooms.
Other charming spots amid the vineyards are:
Domaine de la Ramade
Route de Narbonne Plage, 11110 Armissan
Route de Gruissan, Narbonne
Mas du Soleilla has a nice view to the Sea and offers accommodations.
Hôtel de la Clape offers more basic accommodations for the budget-conscious traveler with rooms starting at € 75+. It has also a nice restaurant with a good wine card and is located near the sea.
4 Rue des Fleurs, 11100 Narbonne
What else to see
Narbonne is an attractive little town and an ideal starting point. In front of the Archbishop’s Palace, you will find a section of the old Via Domitia, the Roman road that connected Italy and Spain. Narbonne was once the capital of Roman Gaul and served as a primary harbor until lack of dredging allowed the waters to fill with silt.
Through the city center flows the Canal de la Robine, which connects to the Canal du Midi. Both are world heritage sights. This 240 kilometer long Canal was inaugurated in 1682 and links the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Boat rentals are available on the canals.
The city market is an absolute must for any visitor. Located in the century old Les Halles, producers from around Narbonne present their local specialties. There are also many stalls serving simple but authentic prepared foods. Here you can find local delicacies like oysters, magret de canard, steak tartar or cheese plates.